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Do your research: an informal guide to tackling research essays

By: Hannah Thiessen, 3rd Year History student

One of the most intimidating things about being a history student is the breadth of professors’ knowledge, and the assumption that students will acquire the same. With the right attitude and strategies though, gaining the necessary knowledge to succeed both on your paper and in the course is quite attainable. However, there are approaches to make the research and writing process less daunting, or even enjoyable! I am writing from the perspective of a history student, but hopefully you will see how what I’ve learned can apply to many disciplines. Here are some of the approaches I’ve found helpful and strategies I’ve used to find what I’m looking for.

Start early!

I know this seems simultaneously obvious and unattainable, but it really is beneficial to give yourself plenty of time to compile your research for a strong essay. Reading takes time, and before you can even get started on reading, you’ll need to find the sources that will apply to your topic. Queen’s University has an impressive collection of sources to meet your every need if you are willing to look in the right places. I always start with resources on offer at the library, found through Queen’s Summon because it offers a wide variety of sources in a straightforward manner. It is most efficient to filter your search using the “Advanced Search” tool to limit the number of responses and increase relevance of material. However, for those papers that have very specific disciplinary requirements, a short jaunt into the Queen’s databases or a conversation with one of the library’s in-house experts can provide a tailored selection of resources.

Know where you’re going!

While a substantial bibliography goes a long way for a good grade, don’t over-research. Creating a focused selection of sources is accomplished through formulating a specific research question–which your professors occasionally require of you or provide you–and having some idea of the argument you want to make. You won’t want to write a pre-research thesis – you’ll need to do some reading for that – but think through the possible contentions surrounding your topic.

Once you’ve established your research question, look for a straightforward, reliable source that helps to answer it. From there you can access more specific and likely scholarly sources by following the footnotes! Footnotes are easy to gloss over, but they can often point you in the direction of other scholars who have done work on the topic and can save you from having to sift through useless sources.

Keep track of where you’ve been!

Research notes are vital to creating a firm foundation upon which to build a solid essay. Make them as expansive and coherent as necessary, but avoid writing down absolutely everything you read. An indication that a phrase or passage is worth recording is that it is present in multiple sources or at multiple points in the paper. As you read, look for common themes among sources, and ways that scholars address individual topics. In history, this caters to a historiographical approach to writing, but more broadly it also substantiates your chosen topic. The information in the introduction and conclusion tends to be noteworthy, so comb through those sections carefully. Organize your sources and page numbers so that you can refer back to them easily, and try to be mindful of phrases that would fit well as quotes in the final essay.

Talk to your Professor

Setting up an appointment with your professor should happen at some point during your writing process. Ideally it would happen before you’ve gone too far into your research, but it’s all right to have a basis of knowledge to present your prof as well. Your professor or TA marking you will likely be able to give you both a direction within your topic and a sense of their expectations for your essay. On top of that, you’re doing yourself a favour by demonstrating your diligence to them. That said, emailing them the night before your assignment is due is not likely to go in your favour, so give yourself some time before the due date.

To sum up:

These research strategies and approaches probably won’t be revolutionary for you to read, but I hope that they are a reminder that even the most seemingly complicated task is well within your abilities. These strategies are here to help you find clarity as you face your deadlines, and if you would like even more guidance, you’re welcome to drop by the Writing Centre for some assistance. To borrow the illustrious words of Bob the Builder, you can do this, and we can help!


Photo by J— S on Unsplash.